ACTG’s Next Chapter: Erica Dickerson
The winds of change are blowing at A Chance To Grow. In June, founders and directors, Bob and Kathy DeBoer retired after 35 years leading this exceptional, life-changing organization. On July 1, Director of Clinical and Home-Based Services, Erica Dickerson, assumed the helm as ACTG Executive Director.
Erica’s journey to this role began at Michigan State University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in Communication Disorders. As an intern in both voice and adult therapy clinics, her passion for language development and non-verbal language grew. Erica received a master’s degree in Speech Pathology from Kent State University in 1997.
After graduation, Erica and her husband, Greg, relocated to the Twin Cities where she pursued a career in adult speech pathology. Working with NovaCare Rehabilitation, she served several different clinics including one that primarily served children.
“I didn’t anticipate working with kids … all my training was with adult populations,” said Erica, “but after I was assigned to a pediatric clinic, I discovered how much I absolutely loved working with children and the impact it could make on the whole family.“
Soon after, Erica was hired as a full-time speech pathologist at Therapy Connections for Kids in Coon Rapids, where she spent the next three years practicing her passion in pediatric speech pathology. Although she enjoyed her job, Erica was receptive to the opportunity as Rehab Director at A Chance To Grow.
“I walked into the building and I knew immediately: It was a no-brainer,” said Erica. “There was great energy and amazing facilities. It’s everything a therapist could need and more.”
Erica accepted that role, as well as a half-time position as a speech therapist, in 2001. She was thrilled about her new opportunity, but was even more excited about everything else ACTG had to offer--audio-visual entrainment, vision clinic and auditory therapies.
Over the next few years ACTG added new therapies and departments under Bob & Kathy’s leadership. Erica enjoyed collaborating with other therapists, learning new techniques and incorporating them into treatments. “It always felt like we were trying to catch up to their ideas and visions,” she said, “and for every challenge or roadblock, they just figured out a way to make it work.”
Erica learned a great deal from the DeBoers. She admired Kathy’s never-ending quest for new information and Bob’s ‘don’t-take-no-for-an-answer’ mentality. She learned that it’s OK to not to know everything; that sometimes, it’s more important to ask the right questions and listen to clients.
The Rehab department’s three clients in 2001, today number more than 180 children and adults. Erica considers this a testament to Bob and Kathy’s commitments to helping children achieve their full potential.
“Bob and Kathy want to make a real impact in the community,” said Erica. “Their goal to get children ready for kindergarten, college and adulthood is inspirational and motivates me to take on new challenges with the same determination. It’s one of the reasons I truly enjoy coming into work every day,” she said.
Over the next several years, Erica’s role expanded into nearly every ACTG department. As Director of Clinical and Home-Based Services, she utilized her talents to support practitioners and professionals by ensuring they possessed the best knowledge and tools to do great work. She organized fundraising events, established partnerships and wrote grants that funded many groundbreaking initiatives. “It’s been amazing to be a part of so many of the success stories for families we’ve touched,” she said. “What I really love, now being a parent, is watching the impact we can make on an entire family in working with their child.”
In 2016, Erica’s management responsibilities grew to include the Turnquist Childcare Enrichment Center, where she helped grow the parent transportation program. With the potential to improve the lives of multiple generations, this program holds a special place for Erica.
As Erica transitions to her new role as Executive Director, she aspires to continue the work of the DeBoers in listening to the needs of parents and providing the essential services to help their children lead happy and healthy lives.
Looking forward, Erica will work to ensure the sustainability of the agency’s programs and services. As well as executing new outreach strategies to create greater awareness of ACTG, she will assist with the implementation of the Emotionally SMART pilot-program that addresses ways to help children who have experienced emotional trauma.
“Parents don’t have 20 years to wait around for the research,” she said, “they go out and look for what works now. Thanks to the work of our founders and amazing practitioners, we have 35 years of experience and successes to share with parents. We have the passion to help…and ability to provide hope.”
Building Good Futures: A Teen Parent’s Story
Jillian had just entered high school when she learned that she was going to be a mother. At 14, she was overwhelmed at the idea of being a single parent. She told herself, “I’m going to stay in school. I’m going to get this done.” She attended classes for a few months, but a complicated pregnancy and unstable living situation made it nearly impossible to focus on her studies. Like so many teen parents, she had to drop out to care for herself and her child.
Her son, Kaiden, was born prematurely. The doctors warned Jillian that he may not survive. He had a feeding tube and required a lot of attention, making it even more difficult for Jillian to plan for their future. One month after Kaiden’s birth, his health had stabilized and Jillian returned to school. It was hard for her to focus while away from her baby, and she would often leave in the middle of the day to be with him.
It was during her sophomore year that Jillian, now 15 and mother of a 3-month-old, found out she was pregnant again. Nine months and another difficult pregnancy later, she gave birth to her second son, Khail. They all moved in with Khail’s father and Jillian once again attempted a return to school.
She endured emotional abuse and battled depression and anxiety, both at home and in the classroom. Now with two children under the age of two and another father who wasn’t fulfilling his responsibilities, she was again forced to drop out in what would have been her junior year.
“With two of them so close in age, not having much help, and not having anyone to watch them, I didn’t have time for school,” said Jillian. Soon after, a 16-year-old Jillian packed up her boys and moved back in with her parents.
For the next two years, Jillian bounced from job to job. She wanted to provide for her children and didn’t want any help from the boys’ fathers, but the demands of working and parenting were difficult. Without a driver’s license, transportation was always an obstacle. Her parents helped when they could, but were adamant that Jillian return to school and earn her GED.
Determined to find a solution, Jillian filed for daycare assistance through the Minnesota Family Investment Program; a service helping low-income families with children meet their basic needs, while helping parents move to financial stability. She was referred to the Minnesota Visiting Nurses Association (a partner of A Chance To Grow) where she learned about the 4-star Parent Aware rated Turnquist Child Enrichment Center.
After touring the center and learning about ACTG’s Teen Parent and Transportation program, Jillian, now 19, was excited for the opportunity to return to school. She would finally be able to focus on her education with the peace of mind that her children would be cared for in a nurturing and accredited childcare center.
“I started at Minneapolis Community Technical College last September and my boys started at Turnquist the same day! It’s made my life easier,” she said, “I’m improving myself and making sure I can build a good future for them.”
Her boys love the program, too. Prior to Turnquist, Khail had difficulty socializing with other children and had attachment issues. Now, nearly a year later, he has lots of friends and looks forward to going to school, in part to the S.M.A.R.T. approach (Stimulating Maturity through Accelerated Readiness Training) developed at A Chance To Grow.
“Turnquist’s staff genuinely love the kids and the children love their teachers,” she said. “They also have helpful resources to us younger parents. Other schools don’t care to help out the family as a unit like Turnquist.”
With her children being cared for and her home life stabilizing, Jillian was able to focus on her education and on April 17, 2018, she earned her GED. Shortly thereafter, she participated in an internship program at Hennepin County Medical Center and is now exploring courses to pursue a bachelor’s degree in Medical Management, where she hopes to begin a career as a nursing assistant and cosmetologist.
“This program has helped me improve my life by allowing me to go back to school, graduate, get a good internship opportunity, and help me do what I need to while knowing my children are being taken care of,” she said. “Turnquist and ACTG’s Teen Parent Program provides comfort to my kids and to me. It’s their second home where they know they’re safe and loved.”